Saturday, February 06, 2010

Colored people and blacks, Hispanics and Latinos, Asians and Orientals

In putting together a follow-up to the previous post tracking the descriptors for blacks through time, I checked the first few pages of return results to see if "colored" would be used as an adjective to describe something other than race. This article on an anniversary for the "colored home" grabbed my attention as a possible false-positive, but it's genuine. The colored house was apparently a sort of refuge for black street rats.

Yet there are surely a handful of returns having nothing to do with race. Although their significance may be minor, to be on the safe side, I elected to track the phrase "colored people", rather than just "colored". For comparative purposes with other descriptors, the unadultered plural of the noun is optimal, but "coloreds" is rarely used at the expense of "colored people", "colored folks", "colored voters", etc. Consequently, the "colored" adjective to identify those of African descent is relatively underrepresented below.

The following graphs show the percentage of all NYT articles written first by decade (through the 1950s) and then by year (from 1960 on), containing the indicated word or phrase.

Unlike "negroes", which is abruptly swapped out for "blacks" in the late sixties, "colored people" peaks ahead of the civil rights' era but subsequently experiences a gentle but steady decrease in use after that. It appears to stabilize in the eighties, but by that time, many, if not most, articles contained "colored people" as part of the NAACP ("National Association of Colored People"). By the beginning of last decade, the phrase had finally all but fell out of use. As it does not have the same perceived connotations of "negroes", once the popular lexicon gave primacy to "blacks", those who had come of age when describing a black man as colored was perfectly acceptable did not feel compelled to adjust their working vocabularly accordingly. Although they're in the twilight of their lives, there are still people who use "colored" instead of "black" or "African-American". My grandmother, for instance, is one of them.

Going in, I had little sense of the historical patterns in nouns used to describe people from south of the border. "Latino" seems to be favored over "Hispanic" by the 'aggrieved' and their sympathizers--the former is usually delivered with the most emphatic Spanish accent possible, in contrast with the rest of the speaker's words. When I hear an NPR correspondent from Mexico City or Los Angeles articulating Latino as if he's speaking Spanish, I presume he's making it known he's one with the Latino people.

"Hispanic" is still the most common descriptor used, though the commonality of usage of the two may converge in the media over the next several years. While the number of articles devoted to blacks appears to be on the decline, the continued increase in the size of the Hispanic population means an increasing amount of coverage will be devoted to their special interests going forward.

I've never heard someone from the most populous continent described as an oriental except in fun. East Asians, especially, tend to be too well-adjusted and successful to take offense at being referred to in such an antiquated way. A silly antic of mine is to introduce an Asian to someone else by earnestly saying (with emphasis on the word "oriental"), "This is my oriental friend, Kunal. He's from somewhere in Asia."

The reason I've not witnessed it used otherwise is because since the time of the Korean War, "Asian" became the noun of choice. It is in 1949 when "Asians" marginally overtakes "Orientals", but just a year later, the former is used twice as frequently. The gap has never come close to closing since then.

The aggregation of all non-whites is not novel. "Minorities" has been part of the media lexicon since the Great Depression. It predictably hit a growth spurt in the late sixties, but then dips again during the Reagan administration, shoots up again at the end of the decade, drops once more in the mid-nineties, hits another high at the turn of the century, and then sinks back to where it was before the Civil Rights movement got into gear. Hopefully someone more learned than me can offer a cogent explanation for the roller coaster.

The final graph shows the sum of all descriptors used for each of the three major minority (heh) groups--blacks, Hispanics, and Asians--as well as "minorities" as a whole. There is a bit of double-counting as a consequence of newspaper writers' attempts at elegant variation ("blacks" and "African-Americans" being used in the same article), but the relative change over time in attention devoted to the three groups is the graph's purpose.

Compared to the ten years preceding it, the first decade of the 21st century appears to have been mild in the amount of media attention devoted to non-whites. Blacks got a boost during the 2008 Presidential election, but in 2009 the trend of gentle decline resumed. This is, of course, just one way of arriving at a rough estimate of media focus over time, and it still may seem regrettably excessive, but it's a reasonable measure. Only attention to Hispanics seems to be holding firm, as media types continue to wait for the Hispanic tidal wave that is sure to be arriving soon.


agnostic said...

About the "minorities" one, the decline actually begins in the mid-late '70s. That's something I've found over and over for related things. I put up one at GNXP about "nigger" in the NYT, and there's a slump from the mid-late '70s through the late '80s.

That slump also shows up for words that indicate how sarcastic, etc., the culture is. I put up another one at my blog about "me" that also shows a decline during that period. That roughly 15-year stretch from 1975 to 1989 was remarkably refreshing.

The early-'90s peak reflects the social hysteria of the time (Rodney King, Third Wave feminism, Regan caused AIDS, etc.). The late-'90s peak is anomalous when you consider related trends, but I'm sure it has to do with racial profiling. For whatever reason, racial profiling peaks in the NYT at that time (I've looked at that, but don't know if I have a graph up on it).

Audacious Epigone said...

If I remember correctly, you are predicting a cultural turn from the disaffected and sarcastic to cute earnestness in the early 2020s, right?

ironrailsironweights said...

Region may have some effect on the Hispanic vs. Latino choice. In the Northeast, where I am, Hispanic is the more common term by quite some margin and doesn't appear to be politically incorrect in any way. It's my impression that Latino is the term of choice in California.

"Spanish" as a name for Latin Americans used to be fairly common in this area. In the last couple of decades it has fallen largely but not completely out of use.

Moving on to a different group, "Afro-American" enjoyed a brief period of popularity, in the 1970's I believe, but today you hardly ever hear it.


Anonymous said...

Funny story. I was having a conversation with a black co-worker and he repeatedly stumbled over the phrase "historically black... er, um... African-American colleges" when telling me about his family. Poor guy, thinking he has to be politically correct even though he's black.

Sgt. Joe Friday said...

A little O/T, but what a lot of people don't realize is that we have Richard Nixon to thank for the whole "Hispanic" thing.

Back in the late 60s, Nixon's Dept. of HEW coined the term "Hispanic" to refer mainly to Mexican Americans (and to a lesser extent, Puerto Ricans if I am not mistaken) as a way to separate them out as a counterweight to what Nixon saw as black political influence. Crudely put, Nixon's bet was that if the blacks could be pitted against the Mexicans it would create fissures in the Democrats' coalition.

LBJ had just signed the 1965 immigration law that opened up the floodgates to 3rd world immigration, which Nixon either didn't take into account or simply ignored. I have to believe that if Nixon were alive today he'd be horrified at what his seemingly "brilliant" bit of political strategy has done to this country.

Audacious Epigone said...


I'd forgotten about that. Thanks for the refresher.